Last Saturday, Rumon Gamba presided over the tense finale of the Michael Hill International Violin Competition, impressing with his individual and alert musical support for two competitors who had opted for the Sibelius Concerto.

On Thursday, Auckland Philharmonia Orchestra's Enigma Variations programme confirmed the English conductor's considerable reputation on the familiar territory of the Elgar classic.

Launching the evening, Lilburn's Aotearoa Overture was a revelation. Gamba downplayed the idyllic here, with cut-and-thrust rhythmic ploys and great surging climaxes making it a bracingly new take on a Kiwi classic.

There were more Michael Hill memories when Benjamin Schmid gave us Bartok's Second Violin Concerto, the same piece that secured a win for Sergey Malov in the 2011 competition.


From the start, Schmid penetrated the very soul of this work, weaving the composer's haunting lament over bold B major harmonies.

The taxing demands of a roving allegro non troppo were well handled; as was the melancholic bent of the following andante tranquillo, especially when the soloist was showcased against smaller forces of woodwind and then lower strings.

The English composer Hubert Parry hailed Elgar's Enigma Variations for their friendliness, and its ability to gladden the people of many lands. This is an understatement for what many must have felt after this performance.

With the APO at its most responsive, Gamba detailed the opening theme with the finesse of a jeweller, before moving on to Elgar's musical tributes to "friends pictured within". The buoyancy of the opening variation, showing the composer's wife Alice, was life-enhancing, followed by the earnest exercises of a piano-playing friend transmuted into extraordinary music.

Gamba and his musicians did full justice to the diaphanous delicacies of the famous Dorabella variation and, through the score, important string solos were beautifully given out, led by violist Robert Ashworth.

Inevitably, one sensed a hush of expectancy at the end of the eighth variation; and we were fully rewarded when a glorious Nimrod rose up, as if from the mist, in a tremulous triple piano.